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Tips for resolving conflicts in physical activity settings

This is an excerpt from Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility Through Physical Activity-3rd Edition by Don Hellison.

Level I: Conflict Resolution Strategies

Sometimes, conflicts can be negotiated during the group meeting, but often it is difficult to solve an issue with the whole class chiming in. Additionally, many conflicts are potentially too volatile to negotiate in that setting.

Sport Court

When issues come up in class or in the group meeting, individuals can make suggestions, and sometimes a show of hands will resolve the issue, but if the problem requires extended discussion, a small team of kids may be able to discuss it and come to a decision more easily. A sport court is such a group.

Sport court consists of three students elected by the students to make decisions on difficult issues referred by the program leader. Sport court was created when I spent a year working in a PA-based program at a day treatment center for severely emotionally disturbed kids ages 6 to 17. The sport court seemed to function swiftly, fairly, and effectively. You could hear a pin drop when the sport court announced its verdict, which was almost always tougher than what I would have done. As an example, one of the kids' classroom teachers tried to assert his authority during our PE program, and the kids protested that they got to make decisions in this program. The teacher was seething, but I turned it over to the sport court. They debated in private for maybe 10 minutes before coming back with a unanimous rejection of the teacher's demands, accompanied by their rationale. Pretty gutsy, I thought.


In games, the job of officials is to ensure that players follow the rules and to resolve disputes. Self-officiating students are responsible for resolving conflicts themselves rather than just trying to avoid being caught by an official. But monitoring oneself and pointing out one's own mistakes are no easy tasks for most kids (or adults for that matter). Struggling through this process, while time-consuming and sometimes rancorous, does teach kids how to solve conflicts. Who last touched the ball? Was she safe or out? Was there a foul on that play? Does that deserve time in the penalty box? These aren't world-changing issues, but they matter to the players. Working them out promotes a more democratic climate. (The coaching club described in chapter 9 used a form of self-officiating.)

When I used self-officiating in the coaching club, the student player-coaches were primarily responsible for solving problems during games. The rules were simple:

  • Handle it!
  • Do it without anger or disrespect.
  • Listen to all sides.

If I have to get involved, that means you had difficulty solving the issue or managing the process.

Don Andersen, an elementary school PE teacher in the Chicago area, created a variation of this policy. He doesn't officiate, but if he sees a student commit an obvious rule violation and not make the call, that student is required to give up the ball and sit out for 30 seconds, leaving the team shorthanded. This is behavior modification, but it is at least a partially logical consequence of failing to call a rules violation on oneself. It is also a wake-up call to start self-officiating.

Talking Bench

The talking bench strategy (Horrocks, 1978) addresses the conflict resolution component of Level I. To resolve a conflict between two kids, the program leader sends them to an area, such as a bench, designated for settling disputes. They resolve the problem and report back to the program leader that the problem is resolved (perhaps by saying, “It's over”) before returning to the activity. They are not required to report details. As in other conflicts, the rules were simple: Show respect, listen to both sides, and resolve it.

One teacher requires students to “come up with one story of what happened” (Lickona, 1991, p. 296). Participants may need help in this process, but the program leader cannot act as a referee, which is unfortunately a common practice, because that removes responsibility from the students for solving their problem. Mike DeBusk reported hearing the conversation of two fourth-grade boys who were heading to the talking bench. One said, “Let's tell him it's over,” and the other agreed. They pivoted and came back to Mike, told him they had handled it, and he said, “Okay.” As he explained, they did end the dispute.

Emergency Plan

California elementary physical education teacher Rudy Benton's idea of creating an emergency plan at a group meeting before games empowers students to determine a generic method for handling conflicts during the game. The group may decide, for example, to flip a coin to decide disputes. In my experience, however, when a dispute arises, students are often reluctant to put their emergency plan into practice; they would rather argue! Reminders help.

Making New Rules

A variation of the emergency plan is to ask participants to make rules to help solve the problems they are having. This technique can also be used to head off Level I problems by asking students to make “respect rules.” They know how they would like to be treated; they can share these things and then create some rules for class.

Conflicts sometimes occur at stations where a handful of students are involved in doing task sheets, a drill, a team practice, a game, or some other activity. A challenging example from my experience involved a trampoline station (it's an old story!), where serious safety considerations as well as issues surrounding taking turns and the length of a turn caused one problem after another. I reminded the students about using the levels in resolving problems. Nevertheless, they complained incessantly. I required that they make station rules. The rules they made didn't work, so they made new rules. And then more new rules. Then they requested that I police them. I did that for a little while and then asked them to try again. They got better—safer, happier—but it was a (very) gradual progress with considerable backsliding.

More Excerpts From Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility Through Physical Activity 3rd Edition



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